What You Should Think About Rugged Individualism

October 6, 2007

“Great men can’t be ruled.”

–Ayn Rand

Seldom do political discussions get more absurd than when they are joined by someone intent on regarding every social service, every stimulus effort, and even every bit of public infrastructure as an unforgivable assault on his perceived “right” to resist taxation. Even as most of these individuals imagine themselves to be somehow greater than ordinary citizens of our nation, they display a self-inflicted mental impairment that diminishes them to less than average. Be it misanthropic contempt for America’s least fortunate citizens or megalomaniacal confidence in their own personal grandeur, this renunciation of society as a concept is simple ignorance masquerading as keen political insight.

In fairness, I believe a society should allow people to be as economically independent as they choose to be. If someone wants to hike out into the woods and actually live as a “rugged individualist,” so be it. However, if someone wants to espouse that peculiar political philosophy while lounging in the comforts and securities he or she rails against, then that someone is a hypocrite of the first order. Utilizing banks and currency, hiring publicly educated employees, enjoying the security of emergency services, benefiting from the protection of the criminal justice system — I could easily go on beyond my self-imposed 1,500 word limit were I to be more exhaustive and more specific about how modern institutions of government facilitate modern accumulations of wealth.

More often than not, entrepreneurs up in arms about their obligations to support the state are really just bitter they cannot keep more of the money they siphon away from employees who actually do produce something of value with their daily labor. Yet even wealthy people who accomplish more than organizational scheming — writers, athletes, inventors, etc. — still cannot honestly claim that their personal income is something that could be sustained after the dissolution of various agencies and institutions that constitute the public sector of civilized societies.

How can I possibly know that? Well, civilization has broken down from time to time in recent history. Take Iraq, for a fresh example. The “less government is good government” ideologues in the White House seemed to think that pretty much everything except oil field security was an unfit activity for authorities in occupied Iraq. I mean, they didn’t even bother to plan for protection around museums packed full of ancient treasures . . . not to mention explosives stockpiles! It is as if they expected anarchy to be a significant upgrade over fascism.

Hindsight makes it clear this is not at all a realistic belief. Huge populations left to their own devices, with no state supervision, find themselves quickly falling prey to organized violence. Given enough chaos, self-styled “warlords” tend to replace ordinary gangsters as de facto authorities (as has been the case in some parts of Africa lately.)

State sponsored enforcement of criminal bans on various forms of victimization are essential to the accumulation of real wealth. Not only do police make it possible to retain wealth without personally becoming the leader of an armed gang, but they also create an environment of security where people of all levels of affluence will have better opportunities to become involved in productive enterprises.

However, it is fair to say that the fringe of true anarchists in modernity is fairly small. Contemporary hostility toward government usually falls short of calls to ban courts and armies altogether. Yet it still goes too far in so many other areas. Resolving basic security issues is just the foundation of a structure for promoting prosperity. Wise policies can raise that structure to great heights, creating opportunities that would otherwise simply not be viable.

For example, public education involves a mix of local, state, and federal spending intended to promote knowledge and useful basic skills amongst the general population. A simple-minded critique of public education compares the work product of private schools with public schools and produces the conclusion that everything should be privatized. This neglects the obvious fact that public school enrollees are selected by default, whereas private schools benefit from student bodies selected by the special interests or needs of those students and their families. Privatization advocates never even try to normalize for household income, scholastic aptitude, and other hugely influential factors because, even in the field of education, getting near the truth runs contrary to naked corporate avarice.

Though there are truly wasteful forms of government spending, many self-styled “rugged individualists” are awash in real benefits from really useful programs even as they renounce those programs as waste. Public roads and even subsidized mass transit facilitate enormous economic opportunity by making commuting a more inviting opportunity for workers. Social Security and related programs enable many people to focus on their careers when they might otherwise be overburdened by tending to the basic needs of elderly or disabled loved ones. Even public housing is good for business — unless your idea of good business involves being awash in panhandlers with a sprinkling of desperate criminals in the mix.

I suppose for some people there is a romantic notion at work here — the bold pioneer off in the Wild West with only his trusty rifle and the family dog to protect his kin from assorted dangers. Eking a living from the land may have its appeal for some, but that image is not at all applicable to modern day professionals and entrepreneurs. However much personal attributes factor into personal economic successes, no modern American prosperity tales would be remotely possible without the broad range of support provided by civilized governance. From regulated capital markets to bans on indiscriminate dumping of toxic waste, we see progress when collective needs are responsibly addressed . . . and setbacks when they are neglected.

Take the current economic mess related to inadequately regulated mortgage issuing and reselling. Elected officials unduly enamored with “rugged individualist” thinking were openly hostile to placing responsible controls on the American mortgage industry. Their single-minded fervor for unregulated growth caused them to forget the clear advantages generated by a middle ground that balances the need for economic freedom with the need for economic accountability. Arcane financial instruments were repackaged and resold again and again until some debtors had no idea who to actually pay . . . and likewise some creditors had no idea who to collect from. The resulting confusion combined with irresponsible pushes to promote large debt loads for working class homeowners to create a bursting bubble heard round the world.

It remains to be seen what the full impact on the American economy and America’s creditor nations will be from this mismanagement. However, it already seems clear that responsible regulation in the mortgage industry would have done much less to impair prosperity than the inevitable consequence of not having responsible regulations in place. While technocrats thrive amidst all the relevant nuances, many people prefer a coarser approach to political, economic, and philosophical issues. As much as that crudeness may feel like a stand on principle, it is all too often a stand in favor of gross oversimplification instead.

Thus it is I contend you should think that “rugged individualism” is a ruse intended to promote simple-minded approaches to civic thought. It creates a smoke screen obscuring clear insight into the realities of sound economic stewardship — an inescapably complex matter in the modern era. As far as philosophies go, it manages to be archaic and corrupt at the same time. It serves only to prevent people from getting the kind of clear picture that might be obtained by focusing on the realities of cause and effect in American public policy. In short, even though I probably don’t know you, I can write with confidence that you can do better for yourself when it comes to adopting a basis for your political, economic, and philosophical views.